The 1948 Palestinian exodus (الهجرة الفلسطينية, al-Hijra al-Filasteeniya), referred to by Palestinians as al Naqba (النكبة), meaning the "disaster", "catastrophe", or "cataclysm, refers to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem during and after the 1948 Palestine war.
By 1951, the United Nations (UN) estimated 711,000 Palestinian refugees existed outside Israel, with about one-quarter of the estimated 160,000 Arab Palestinians remaining in Israel as "internal refugees." Today, Palestinian refugees and their descendants are estimated to number over 4 million people.
Historians have argued over the causes of the Palestinian exodus. In early decades following the exodus, two diametrically opposed schools of analysis could be distinguished. The ‘Israeli Government claimed that the Palestinian Arabs left because they were ordered to and were deliberately incited into panic by their own leaders, who wanted the field cleared for the 1948 war’. While ‘The Palestinian Arabs charge that their people were evicted at bayonet-point and by panic deliberately incited by the Zionists.’ From the 1960s Walid Khalidi and others have maintained that the Expulsion of the Palestinians was a deliberate policy.
With the opening up of Archival sources in the West and Israel, particularly the opening of the Protocols of the Israel's Cabinet Meetings and the declassification of the Haganah Archive in Tel Aviv along with the IDF and Israeli Defence Ministry Archive in Givatayim. A greater insight has been gained into the events leading up to the creation of Israel and the events surrounding it birth, in particular with the publication of the study by Benny Morris: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem.
"New Historians" have presented a viewpoint suggesting around half of the Palestinians of the exodus were purposely expelled by Israeli army whereas this was not an organised policy. However Walid Khalidi and other Palestinian historians, supported by Ilan Pappe defend the thesis that the expulsions formed part of a deliberate plan.
The initial exodus and the current situation of Palestinian refugees is a contentious topic of high importance to all parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
While expulsion of the Palestinians had been contemplated by some Zionists from the 1890s (see Zionist quotes), during this period there was no official Yishuv policy favoring expulsion and Jewish leaders anticipated that the new Jewish state would have a sizable Arab minority. The Haganah was instructed to avoid spreading the conflagration by indiscriminate attacks and to avoid provoking British intervention. On 18 December, 1947 the Haganah approved an aggressive defense strategy, which in practice meant 'a limited implementation of "Plan May" (Tochnit Mai or Tochnit Gimel), which, produced in May 1946, was the Haganah master plan for the defence of the Yishuv in the event of the outbreak of new troubles… The plan included provision, in extremis, for "destroying Arab transport" in Palestine, and blowing up houses used by Arab terrorists and expelling their inhabitants. In early January the Haganah adopted Operation Zarzir, a scheme to assassinate leaders affiliated to Amin al-Husayni, placing the blame on other Arab leaders, but in practice few resources were devoted to the project and the only attempted killing was of Nimr al Khatib.
The only authorised expulsion at this time took place at Qisarya, south of Haifa, where Palestinian Arabs were evicted and their houses destroyed on 19 February - 20 February 1948. In attacks that were not authorised in advance several communities were expelled by the Haganah and several others were chased away by the Irgun.
According to Ilan Pappé the Zionists organised a campaign of threats, consisting of the distribution of threatening leaflets, 'violent reconnaissance' and, after the arrival of mortars, the shelling of Arab villages and neighborhoods. The idea of 'violent reconnaissance' was to enter a defenceless village at night, fire at everyone who dared leave his or her house and leave after a few hours. Pappé also notes that the Haganah shifted its policy from retaliation through excessive retaliation to offensive initiatives. During the 'long seminar', a meeting of Ben-Gurion with his chief advisors in January 1948, the departure point was that it was desirable to 'transfer' as many Arabs as possible out of Jewish territory, and the discussion focussed mainly on the implementation. The experiences in a number of attacks in February 1948, notably those on Qisarya and Sa'sa', were used in the development of a plan, detailing how enemy population centers should be handled. According to Pappé plan Dalet was the master plan for the expulsion of the Palestinians.
Palestinian belligerency in these first few months was 'disorganised, sporadic and localised and for months remained chaotic and uncoordinated, if not undirected'. Husayni lacked the resources to mount a full-scale assault on the Yishuv and restricted himself to sanctioning minor attacks and to tightening the economic boycott. The British claimed that Arab rioting might well have subsided had the Jews not retaliated with firearms.
Overall Morris concludes that the 'Arab evacuees from the towns and villages left largely because of Jewish - Haganah, IZL or LHI - attacks or fear of impending attack' but that only 'an extremely small, almost insignificant number of the refugees during this early period left because of Haganah or IZL or LHI expulsion orders or forceful "advice" to that effect'. In this sense, Glazer quotes the testimony of Count Bernadotte, the UN mediator in Palestine, who reported that "the exodus of the Palestinian Arabs resulted from panic created by fighting in their communities, by rumours concerning real or alleged acts of terrorism, or expulsion. Almost the whole of the Arab population fled or was expelled from the area under Jewish occupation".
"Above all let me reiterate, the refugee problem was caused by attacks by Jewish forces on Arab villages and towns and by the inhabitants' fear of such attacks, compounded by expulsions, atrocities, and rumour of atrocities - and by the crucial Israeli Cabinet decision in June 1948 to bar a refugee return."
The fighting in these months was concentrated in the Jerusalem - Tel Aviv area and most depopulations took place in Jewish controlled areas, such as Tiberius, Haifa, Jaffa and the coastal region. The Deir Yassin massacre in early April, and the exaggerated rumours that followed it, helped spread fear and panic among the Palestinians.
Even so, Palestinians fled the city of Haifa en masse, in one of the most notable flights of this stage. Historian Efraim Karsh writes that not only had half of the Arab community in Haifa community fled the city before the final battle was joined in late April 1948, but another 5,000-15,000 left apparently voluntarily during the fighting while the rest, some 15,000-25,000, were ordered to leave, almost certainly on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee. Karsh concludes that there was no Jewish grand design to force this departure, nor was there a psychological 'blitz', but that on the contrary, both the Haifa Jewish leadership, including Mayor Shabtai Levy, and the Hagana went to great lengths to convince the Arabs to stay, to no avail. However Efraim Karsh based his observations on a "British Police Report" of the 26 April sent after the British Forces had evacuated from Haifa and the Jewish forces had taken over the Port of Haifa and the Palestinian Population had already fled. The British Report of 22 April at the height of the fight for Haifa portrays a different picture. Furthermore, two independent studies, which analysed CIA and BBC intercepts of radio Broadcasts from the region concluded that no orders or instructions were given by the Arab Higher Committee.
According to Morris "The Haganah mortar attacks of 21-22 April [on Haifa] were primarily designed to break Arab morale in order to bring about a swift collapse of resistance and speedy surrender. […] But clearly the offensive, and especially the mortaring, precipitated the exodus. The three inch mortars ‘opened up on the market square [where there was] a great crowd […] a great panic took hold. The multitude burst into the port, pushed aside the policemen, charged the boats and began to flee the town’, as the official Haganah history later put it". According to Pappé this mortar barrage was deliberately aimed at civilians to precipitate their flight from Haifa.
The Haganah broadcast a warning to Arabs in Haifa on 21 April: 'that unless they sent away "infiltrated dissidents" they would be advised to evacuate all women and children, because they would be strongly attacked from now on'.
Commenting on the use of 'psychological warfare broadcasts' and military tactics in Haifa, Benny Morris writes:
Throughout the Haganah made effective use of Arabic language broadcasts and loudspeaker vans. Haganah Radio announced that 'the day of judgement had arrived' and called on inhabitants to 'kick out the foreign criminals' and to 'move away from every house and street, from every neighbourhood occupied by foreign criminals'. The Haganah broadcasts called on the populace to 'evacuate the women, the children and the old immediately, and send them to a safe haven'… Jewish tactics in the battle were designed to stun and quickly overpower opposition; demoralisation was a primary aim. It was deemed just as important to the outcome as the physical destruction of the Arab units. The mortar barrages and the psychological warfare broadcasts and announcements, and the tactics employed by the infantry companies, advancing from house to house, were all geared to this goal. The orders of Carmeli's 22nd Battalion were 'to kill every [adult male] Arab encountered' and to set alight with fire-bombs 'all objectives that can be set alight. I am sending you posters in Arabic; disperse on route'.
By mid-May 4000 Arabs remained in Haifa. These were concentrated in Wadi Nisnas in accordance with Plan D whilst the systematic destruction of Arab housing in certain areas, which had been planned before the War, was implemented by Haifa's Technical and Urban Development departments in cooperation with the IDF's city commander Ya'akov Lublini.
According to Glazer (1980, p.111), from May 15, 1948 onwards, expulsion of Palestinians became a regular practice. Avnery (1971), explaining the Zionist rationale, says,
I believe that during this phase, the eviction of Arab civilians had become an aim of David Ben-Gurion and his government …. UN opinion could very well be disregarded. Peace with the Arabs seemed out of the question, considering the extreme nature of the Arab propaganda. In this situation, it was easy for people like Ben-Gurion to believe the capture of uninhabited territory was both necessary for security reasons and desirable for the homogeneity of the new Hebrew state.
Edgar O'Ballance, a military historian, adds,
Israeli vans with loudspeakers drove through the streets ordering all the inhabitants to evacuate immediately, and such as were reluctant to leave were forcibly ejected from their homes by the triumphant Israelis whose policy was now openly one of clearing out all the Arab civil population before them …. From the surrounding villages and hamlets, during the next two or three days, all the inhabitants were uprooted and set off on the road to Ramallah…. No longer was there any "reasonable persuasion". Bluntly, the Arab inhabitants were ejected and forced to flee into Arab territory…. Wherever the Israeli troops advanced into Arab country the Arab population was bulldozed out in front of them.
After the fall of Haifa the villages on the slopes of Mount Carmel had been harassing the Jewish traffic on the main road to Haifa. A Decision was made on 9 May 1948 to expel or subdue the villages of Kafr Saba, al-Tira, Qaqun, Qalansuwa and Tantura On the 11 May 1948 Ben-Gurion convened the “Consultancy” the outcome of the meeting is confirmed in a letter to commanders of the Haganah Brigades telling them that the Arab legion's offensive should not distract their troops from the principle tasks:
"‘the cleansing of Palestine remained the prime objective of Plan Dalet”
The attention of the commanders of the Alexandroni Brigade was turned to reducing the Mount Carmel pocket. Tantura being on the coast gave the Carmel villages’ access to the outside world and so was chosen as the point to surround the Carmel villages as a part of the Coastal Clearing offensive operation in the beginning of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. On the night of 22-23 May 1948 1 week and 1 day after the declaration of Independence of the State of Israel the coastal village of Tantura was attacked and occupied by the 33rd Battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade of the Haganah. The village of Tantura was not given the option of surrender and the initial report spoke of dozens of villagers killed with 300 adult male prisoners and 200 women and children Many of the villages fled to the Fureidis (previously captured) and to Arab held territory. The Captured women of Tantura were moved to Fureidis and on the 31st May Brechor Shitrit the Minister of Minority Affairs of the provisional Government of Israel, sought permission to expel the refugee women of Tantura from Fureidis as the amount of refugees in Fureidis was causing problems of overcrowding and sanitation.
According to a report from the military intelligence SHAI of the Haganah entitled "The emigration of Palestinian Arabs in the period 1/12/1947-1/6/1948", dated 30 June 1948 affirms that:
At least 55% of the total of the exodus was caused by our (Haganah/IDF) operations." To this figure, the report’s compilers add the operations of the Irgun and Lehi, which "directly (caused) some 15%… of the emigration". A further 2% was attributed to explicit expulsion orders issued by Israeli troops, and 1% to their psychological warfare. This leads to a figure of 73% for departures caused directly by the Israelis. In addition, the report attributes 22% of the departures to "fears" and "a crisis of confidence" affecting the Palestinian population. As for Arab calls for flight, these were reckoned to be significant in only 5% of cases…
By the estimates of Morris, 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinians left Israel during this stage. Keesing's Contemporary Archives in London place the total number of refugees before Israel's independence at 300,000.
According to Flapan (1987, pp. 13-14) in Ben-Gurion's view Ramlah and Lydda constituted a special danger because their proximity might encourage cooperation between the Egyptian army, which had started its attack on Kibbutz Negbah, near Ramlah, and the Arab Legion, which had taken the Lydda police station. However the author considers that, Operation Dani, by which the two towns were seized, revealed that no such cooperation existed.
In the opinion of Flapan, "in Lydda, the exodus took place on foot. In Ramlah, the IDF provided buses and trucks. Originally, all males had been rounded up and enclosed in a compound, but after some shooting was heard, and construed by Ben-Gurion to be the beginning of an Arab Legion counteroffensive, he stopped the arrests and ordered the speedy eviction of all the Arabs, including women, children, and the elderly". In explanation, Flapan cites that Ben-Gurion said that "those who made war on us bear responsibility after their defeat".
Rabin wrote in his memoirs:
Flapan maintains that events in Nazareth, although ending differently, point to the existence of a definite pattern of expulsion. On 16 July, three days after the Lydda and Ramlah evictions, the city of Nazareth surrendered to the IDF. The officer in command, a Canadian Jew named Ben Dunkelman, had signed the surrender agreement on behalf of the Israeli army along with Chaim Laskov (then a brigadier general, later IDF chief of staff). The agreement assured the civilians that they would not be harmed, but the next day, Laskov handed Dunkelman an order to evacuate the population.
Additionally, widespread looting and several cases of rape took place during the evacuation. In total, about 100,000 Palestinians became refugees in this stage according to Morris.
During Operation Hiram in the upper Galilee, Israeli military commanders received the order: 'Do all you can to immediately and quickly purge the conquered territories of all hostile elements in accordance with the orders issued. The residents should be helped to leave the areas that have been conquered'. (October 31, 1948, Moshe Carmel) The UN's acting Mediator, Ralph Bunche, reported that United Nations Observers had recorded extensive looting of villages in Galilee by Israeli forces, who carried away goats, sheep and mules. This looting, United Nations Observers report, appeared to have been systematic as army trucks were used for transportation. The situation, states the report, created a new influx of refugees into Lebanon. Israeli forces, he stated, have occupied the area in Galilee formerly occupied by Kaukji's forces, and have crossed the Lebanese frontier. Bunche goes on to say "that Israeli forces now hold positions inside the south-east corner of Lebanon, involving some fifteen Lebanese villages which are occupied by small Israeli detachments".
According to Morris altogether 200,000-230,000 Palestinians left in this stage. According to Ilan Pappé, "In a matter of seven months, five hundred and thirty one villages were destroyed and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied […] The mass expulsion was accompanied by massacres, rape and [the] imprisonment of men […] in labor camps for periods [of] over a year".
In 1949 at the Lausanne conference, Israel proposed allowing 100,000 refugees to return. The offer implicitly included an alleged 25,000 who had already returned surreptitiously and 10,000 projected family-reunion cases and would allow Israel to resettle the returnees where it saw fit. It was further conditional on a full peace treaty that would allow Israel to keep all the territory it had captured and on the Arab states agreeing to absorb the remaining refugees.
Safran wrote that "The Arab states, who had refused even to negotiate face-to-face with the Israelis, turned down the offer because it implicitly recognized Israel's existence".
Morris, however, in a more differentiated analysis, resumes:
Several authors have conducted studies on the number of Palestinian localities which were abandoned, evacuated and/or destroyed during the 1947-1949 period. Based on their respective calculations, the table below summarises their information.
According to COHRE and BADIL, Morris’s list of affected localities, the shortest of the three, includes towns but excludes other localities cited by Khalidi and/or Abu Sitta. The six sources compared in Khalidi’s study have in common 296 of the villages listed as destroyed and/or depopulated. Sixty other villages are cited in all but one source. Of the total of 418 localities cited in Khalidi, 292 (70 percent) were completely destroyed and 90 (22 percent) “largely destroyed”. COHRE and BADIL also note that other sources refer to an additional 151 localities that are omitted from Khalidi's study for various reasons (for example, major cities and towns that were depopulated, as well as some Bedouin encampments and villages ‘vacated’ before the start of hostilities). Abu Sitta’s list includes tribes in Beersheba that lost lands; most of these were omitted from Khalidi’s work.
Another study, involving field research and comparisons with British and other documents, concludes that 472 Palestinian habitations (including towns and villages) were destroyed in 1948. It notes that the devastation was virtually complete in some sub-districts. For example, it points out that 96.0% of the villages in the Jaffa area were totally destroyed, as were 90.0% of those in Tiberiade, 90.3% of those in Safad, and 95.9% of those in Beisan. It also extrapolates from 1931 British census data to estimate that over 70 280 Palestinian houses were destroyed in this period.
In another study, Abu Sitta shows the following findings in eight distinct phases of the depopulation of Palestine between 1947-1949. His findings are summarized in the table below:
|Phase:||No. of destroyed/depopulated localities||No. of refugees||Jewish/Israeli lands (km2)|
|29 Nov. 1947 - Mar. 1948||30||>22.600*||1.159'4|
|Apr. - 13 May 1948 (Tiberiade, Jaffa, Haifa, Safed, etc.)||199||>400.000||3.363'9|
|15 May - 11 June 1948 (an additional 90 villages)||290||>500.000||3.943'1|
|12 June - 18 July 1948 (Lydda/Ramleh, Nazareth, etc.)||378||>628.000||5.224'2|
|19 July - 24 Oct. 1948 (Galilee and southern areas)||418||>664.000||7.719'6|
|24 Oct. - 5 Nov. 1948 (Galilee, etc.)||465||>730.000||10.099'6|
|5 Nov. 1948 - 18 Jan. 1949 (Negev, etc.)||481||>754.000||12.366'3|
|19 Jan. - 20 July 1949 (Negev, etc.)||531||>804.000||20.350'0|
Although there is no accepted definition of who can be considered a Palestinian refugee for legal purposes, UNRWA defines them as 'persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict'. UNRWA's definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948. This comes in contrast to the standard definition of refugee as defined by UNHCR. The final UN estimate was 711,000, but by 1950, according to UNRWA, the number of registered refugees was 914,000. The U.N. Conciliation Commission explains that these numbers are inflated by "duplication of ration cards, addition of persons who have been displaced from area other than Israel-held areas and of persons who, although not displaced, are destitute," and the UNWRA additionally noted that "all births are eagerly announced, the deaths wherever possible are passed over in silence", as well as the fact that "the birthrate is high in any case, a net addition of 30,000 names a year." By June, 1951 the UNWRA had reduced the number of registered refugees to 876,000 after "many false and duplicate registrations [were] weeded out". Today that number has grown to over 4 million, one third of whom live in the West Bank and Gaza; slightly less than one third in Jordan; 17% in Syria and Lebanon (Bowker, 2003, p. 72) and around 15% in other Arab and Western countries. Approximately 1 million refugees have no form of identification other than an UNRWA identification card.
According to Kirsbaum over the years, the Israeli Government has continued to cancel and modify some of the Defence (Emergency) Regulations of 1945, but mostly it has added more as it has continued to extend its declared state of emergency. For example, even though the Prevention of Infiltration Law of 1954 is not labelled as an official "Emergency Regulation", it extends the applicability of the Defence (Emergency) Regulation 112 of 1945 giving the Minister of Defence extraordinary powers of deportation for accused infiltrators even before they are convicted (Articles 30 & 32), and makes itself subject to cancellation when the Knesset ends the State of Emergency upon which all of the Emergency Regulations are dependent.
Following its establishment, Israel designed a system of law that legitimised both a continuation and a consolidation of the nationalisation of land and property, a process that it had begun decades earlier. For the first few years of Israel’s existence, many of the new laws continued to be rooted in earlier Ottoman and British law. These laws were later amended or replaced altogether.
The first challenge facing Israel was to transform its control over land into legal ownership. This was the motivation underlying the passing of several of the first group of land laws..
According to Kirshbaum, the Law has as effect that "no one is allowed in or out without permission from the Israeli Military". "This regulation has been used to exclude a land owner from his own land so that it could be judged as unoccupied, and then expropriated under the Land Acquisition (Validation of Acts and Compensation) Law (1953). Closures need not be published in the Official Gazette".
According to COHRE and BADIL (p.41), unlike other laws that were designed to establish Israel’s ‘legal’ control over lands, this body of law focused on formulating a ‘legal’ definition for the people (mostly Arabs) who had left or been forced to flee from these lands.
The absentee property played an enormous role in making Israel a viable state. In 1954, more than one third of Israel's Jewish population lived on absentee property and nearly a third of the new immigrants (250,000 people) settled in urban areas abandoned by Arabs. Of 370 new Jewish settlements established between 1948 and 1953, 350 were on absentee property.
The term "Nakba" as a euphemism for "disaster" or "catastrophe" first appeared in George Antonius' The Arab Awakening, published in 1938, before the creation of the State of Israel. On page 312, Antonius writes,
“The year 1920 has an evil name in Arab annals: it is referred to as the Year of the Catastrophe (Am al-Nakba). It saw the first armed risings that occurred in protest against the post-War settlement imposed by the Allies on the Arab countries. In that year, serious outbreaks took place in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq.”Thus, this early "Nakba" was a response to the division of Arab-populated lands into British and French mandates, and the Balfour Declaration promoting an independent Jewish state.
The term "Nakba" was given its present meaning by Constantin Zureiq, a professor of history at the American University of Beirut, in his 1948 book Ma'na al-Nakba (The Meaning of the Disaster). After the Six Day War in 1967 Zureiq wrote another book, The New Meaning of the Disaster, but the term Nakba is reserved for the 1948 war. Muhammad Nimr al-Hawari also used the term Nakba in the title of his book Sir al Nakba (The Secret of the Defeat) written in 1955.
Together with Naji al-Ali's Handala (the barefoot child always drawn from behind), and the symbolic key for the house in Palestine carried by so many Palestinian refugees, the 'collective memory of' the Nakba 'has shaped the identity of the Palestinian refugees as a people'.
The events of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War greatly influenced the Palestinian culture. Countless books, songs and poems have been written about the Nakba. The exodus is usually described in strongly emotional terms. For example, at the controversial 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, prominent Palestinian scholar and activist Hanan Ashrawi referred to the Palestinians as "a nation in captivity held hostage to an ongoing Nakba, as the most intricate and pervasive expression of persistent colonialism, apartheid, racism, and victimization."